(HOST) News that National Intelligence Director John Negroponte will give St. Johnsbury Academy’s commencement speech this coming Monday, reminded commentator Jay Craven of a film he shot twenty-six years ago in Central America.
(CRAVEN) I made the documentary, “Dawn of the People,” with Doreen Kraft and Robin Lloyd, about Nicaragua’s National Literacy Crusade.
Directed by Jesuit priest Fernando Cardinal for the new Sandinista-led government, the literacy crusade’s goal was to tackle Nicaragua’s fifty-two percent illiteracy rate. The United Nations called the crusade, “the most important movement of this generation,” as 65,000 teen-aged brigadistas fanned out to teach reading, writing, and math to 600,000 urban poor and rural peasants.
I remember the hope I felt, hitching rides in old trucks, that Nicaragua’s chronic underdevelopment might finally yield through social activism and democratic reform.
Unfortunately, this hope collapsed under the weight of eight years of armed assaults, secret prisons, death squads, and torture against Nicaraguans by the Contras, former soldiers from the Somoza dictatorship who operated from Honduras with U.S. support.
The Contras first attacks targeted the teen-aged literacy workers, to demoralize and intimidate them. Nine young brigadistas were killed.
An estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans perished during the Contra war, which destabilized Nicaragua. It caused the Sandinistas to abandon much of their far-sighted agenda and cut back the literacy crusade’s next steps.
During the 1980’s, this Contra war was ruled illegal by the World Court and it’s funding was terminated by Congress. Reagan administration officials continued to fund the war, however, secretly raising private money and diverting profits from illegal weapons sales to the government of Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Washington Post recently obtained four hundred seventy cables through the Freedom of Information Act that show how, as Reagan’s Ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte secured and sustained Honduran military, logistical, and political support for the CIA campaign to crush the Sandinistas.
Former New York Times foreign affairs correspondent, Stephen Kinzer’s new book, “Overthrow” tracks fourteen cases where U.S. officials worked to forcibly overthrow governments in Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, and others.
Kinzer argues that the 1953 overthrow of the democratic Mossedegh government in Iran and the installation of the repressive Shah may have advanced U.S. oil and strategic objectives over the short term but it led directly to the rise of the “Islamic Revolution” that now opposes American interests all over the world.
Likewise, U.S. backing for Sadaam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party, which began in 1963 to overthrow Iraq’s Qasim government, ultimately produced tragic results.
Kinzer says that the U.S. role in overthrowing governments in Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fuels anti-American nationalism now being voiced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivian President Eva Morales, and others.
As Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador Negroponte grapples with many of the same issues he faced years ago in Central America: war, secret prisons, and human rights. I hope he’s been able to reflect imaginatively on those years, and will bring to our graduates a message full of new ways to foster international diplomacy and avoid repeating the costly mistakes of the past.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.